Must-Read Literature That Hurts

The Hate U GiveHave you ever read a novel you really like, but at the same time found it painful to read? Such is the case with The Hate U Give.

Brief interlude: I appeared once again on the “Tea, Toast & Trivia” show hosted by Rebecca Budd (aka “Clanmother”), the great and engaging Canadian podcaster/blogger. We discussed libraries! Link near the end of this post.

Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give offers a riveting story, superb writing, crackling dialogue, a strong feeling of authenticity, and more. But the 2017 novel — which Ms. Thomas (pictured above) wrote while still in her 20s — is very upsetting because it hinges around a white police officer shooting an unarmed African-American teen in the back, killing him. Eerily similar to this month’s tragedy of an actual white Wisconsin cop criminally putting seven bullets into the back of Black dad Jacob Blake, who is now paralyzed from the waist down. Not an isolated incident, of course, as it’s heartbreakingly, infuriatingly common for racist white American cops to do that sort of thing.

We hear about those incidents often in the news and on social media, so also getting immersed in such a situation in fiction is not easy to take. But it’s necessary — partly because fictional victims of police violence are usually humanized even as real-life media coverage often reduces real-life victims to cardboard caricatures. One of The Hate U Give‘s many strong points is that the story is told from the perspective of its three-dimensional Black characters. Plus the writing and story are steeped in African-American culture (as well as being steeped in the digital age — a lot of texting and social media going on!).

The uncalled-for police murder of Khalil is the novel’s pivotal moment, but the book really focuses on Starr, the teen girl who was with Khalil when he’s shot multiple times. We see her anguished reaction, the community response, the nasty smearing of Khalil’s character, and what Starr does and doesn’t do amid zero interest from the police and other authorities in seeking any kind of punishment for the guilty cop. They want the truth covered up.

Other novels can be painful but important to read for other reasons.

For instance, any novel with American slavery as an element is going to leave any decent person seething and shaken. Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred, Alex Haley’s Roots, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident are just five must-read examples.

Or novels with Holocaust themes such as Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s List, William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, Erich Maria Remarque’s Spark of Life, and Art Spiegelman’s Maus (a graphic novel).

It’s also hard to experience the difficult lives and miserable working conditions of exploited fictional employees — such as the miners in Emile Zola’s Germinal and the characters in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (the latter book did lead to some reforms in the meatpacking industry). Two deservedly classic books, and Germinal is Zola’s masterpiece.

Then there are novels in which certain characters suffer from devastating diseases. We read those books because they can be compelling, informative, and inspiring, but they can also be damn depressing. Lisa Genova’s Still Alice, (Ms.) Lionel Shriver’s So Much for That, Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper

Expand misery to almost an entire society, and you have dystopian or apocalyptic novels that are gripping but exceedingly downbeat. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Neil Shute’s On the Beach, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy, and so on.

And then there are painful love affairs in fiction. One example is the aforementioned Erich Maria Remarque’s mesmerizing A Time to Love and a Time to Die — about a romance between a woman and an on-leave soldier that you just know will end badly.

Heck, Remarque is among the authors who had or have a history of writing melancholy novels, so the reader usually knows something sad’s coming. But if the writers are good enough — and Remarque is fabulous — the books are well worth the time.

Some novels you like or love while finding painful to read?

Here’s the podcast link.

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started, award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest piece — which comedically gives fake origins to local street names — is here.

We Give a Damn About Fictional Couples Not Glam

Gail HoneymanSome memorable couples in literature aren’t gorgeous, charismatic, socially adept, etc. That can be a good thing, because those couples seem more realistic, often evoke warm feelings, and perhaps have a better chance of staying together because there’s more than surface attraction.

Of course, glamorous romantic duos — the opposite of what I described above — don’t always jointly lead charmed lives. Cases in point include pairings such as Scarlett and Rhett in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, Tertius and Rosamond in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, etc. Maybe we’re not as upset when things go south for those “beautiful people.”

A novel I read last week contains a great example of a relationship between two people who aren’t exactly movie-star-like. The title character in Gail Honeyman’s absorbing/sad/funny Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine was psychologically abused as a child by her horror of a mother, and has facial scars from a fire. She’s a smart woman who’s getting by as a nearly 30-year-old adult, but is lonely, depressed, and (mostly) awkward in social settings — which makes it a bit of a surprise when goodhearted coworker Raymond takes an interest in her. He’s more socially adept, but has also had some tough times in life and is a slob, a smoker, and not in great physical shape. Plus the two hold less-than-“prestigious” jobs: finance clerk (she), IT person (he). Anyway, it’s really nice to see the potential for something to work out between two people who’ve had significant struggles.

Honeyman’s novel reminded me a bit of Fredrik Backman’s compellingly quirky A Man Called Ove. One difference is that the odd Ove marries a much more outgoing, “together” person than himself — meaning this was a loving couple in which one member was kind of glam while the other wasn’t. But tragedy later strikes Sonja, which puts a big dent in her favored-by-fate life — and devastates Ove to the point where he becomes a morose recluse for quite a while.

One of the most famous fictional couples not blessed with great looks is Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester in Charlotte Bronte’s iconic novel. But of course the two have other things going for them: Jane is an intelligent, independent-minded “survivor” while Rochester is wealthy and quite charismatic in his rough-hewn way. They fall in love with each other’s minds/personalities. Unfortunately, makers of various Jane Eyre movies couldn’t help themselves — they partly ruined the story by casting actresses and actors much better-looking than Jane and Rochester are in the novel.

Another far-from-chic pair are Raskolnikov and Sofya in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikov is an impoverished, angst-ridden man — and a murderer to boot — while the admirable Sofya is forced into prostitution (before meeting Raskolnikov) to support herself and her family. She’s religious, he’s in need of redemption, and…

Getting back to more recent literature, the appealing teen couple from John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars are both dealing with major physical issues that make for a challenging life — and relationship. Hazel has thyroid cancer that has spread to her lungs, while Augustus had a tumor that caused him to lose his right leg.

I realize I’ve just scratched the surface here. Your favorite fictional couples that fit this blog post’s theme?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started, award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest piece — about my school district’s switch to all-remote learning this fall, and local pushback against the Trump administration’s sabotage of the U.S. Postal Service — is here.

A Look at Some African Literature

AmericanahI was reminded once again of Africa’s rich literary tradition when I recently read…Americanah.

Though much of the novel is set in the United States, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2013 book tells a story that starts and ends in Nigeria. And the author splits her time between Nigeria (where she was born in 1977) and the U.S.

Americanah stars Ifemelu — who comes to the U.S. to study, becomes a widely read blogger on race after working in a variety of more-menial jobs, and gets into diverse romantic relationships even as she remains drawn to Nigeria and her former lover there (Obinze). So we get a fascinating look at Nigerian society (its culture, class divisions, etc.) through the eyes of someone from that nation as well as a fascinating look at American society (its culture, racism, etc.) from that same character — who’s initially a total outsider in the U.S. and rarely feels truly comfortable even after more than a decade in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Connecticut, and New Jersey.

Among Adichie’s other novels are Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), a compelling chronicle of how various characters are affected by Nigeria’s 1967-70 civil war.

Obinze’s daughter in Americanah is named Buchi — possibly a nod to renowned Nigerian writer Buchi Emecheta (1944-2017), who moved to the United Kingdom in her late teens. Emecheta’s excellent second novel is the semi-autobiographical Second Class Citizen, about a young woman who relocates to the UK and deals with a difficult marriage, exhausting parenthood, racism, and sexism as she tries to become a writer.

Adichie’s inspirations included Chinua Achebe (1930-2013) and his classic 1958 novel Things Fall Apart, which chronicles pre-colonial life and the arrival of Europeans in Nigeria.

Another renowned Nigerian writer is 1934-born Wole Soyinka, recipient of the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature. Soyinka has written many more plays and poems than novels, but his The Interpreters (1964) is a memorable book starring five middle-class characters who live and work in early-1960s Lagos.

Yes, all four writers mentioned so far are/were from Nigeria.

There are of course also native African novelists who are white — among them the 1991 Nobel-winning Nadine Gordimer (1923-2014) and Cry, the Beloved Country author Alan Paton (1903-1988). Both were South Africa residents with anti-apartheid views. I have not yet tried the work of 1940-born J.M. Coetzee of that same country; I’ve read every other author mentioned in this post.

Also, 2007 Nobel winner Doris Lessing (1919-2013) spent much of her early life in what’s now Zimbabwe before moving to England.

Non-African authors who wrote novels with African settings include — among others — 2008 Nobel winner J.M.G. Le Clezio, whose Desert is partly set in Morocco; Paul Bowles, whose The Sheltering Sky also has a North African milieu; Joseph Conrad, whose Heart of Darkness unfolds in what’s now the Democratic Republic of the Congo; and H. Rider Haggard, whose fantastical She takes place in “a lost African kingdom.”

Of course, a number of Africa-set novels by non-Africans suffer from some stereotyping and patronizing attitudes on the part of their writers.

Any authors and novels you’d like to mention that fit the theme of this post?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started, award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest piece — which discusses topics such as the damage done by Tropical Storm Isaias — is here.

Wishing Trump’s Assault on the Postal Service Were Fictional


Post offices are on the minds of many people these days as Trump and other Republicans try to decimate the United States Postal Service.

Why the decimation attempt, which includes opposing any desperately needed pandemic aid for the USPS and recently appointing a postmaster general who’s an unqualified Trump lackey/Trump donor who owns stock in private competitors of the USPS? The reason is that the USPS would of course be crucial in delivering ballots for this fall’s election, and mail voting favors Democrats for reasons such as increased turnout.

Also, Trump and his fellow racist/misogynist/anti-union Republicans hate the fact that the USPS provides good unionized jobs to employees who include many people of color and women.

Anyway, I thought I’d pay tribute to post offices by mentioning authors, fictional characters, books, and more with a connection to those all-important stamp sites/letter locales.

For instance, William Faulkner (1897-1962) was a poor-performing postmaster at the University of Mississippi from 1922 to 1924, and poet/novelist Charles Bukowski (1920-1994) was a letter carrier and later a mail clerk in mid-century Los Angeles before turning more definitively to writing. His first novel: Post Office.

Across “the pond,” English novelist Anthony Trollope (1815-1882) spent decades working for his country’s postal service, even as he wrote his many books.

Rita Mae Brown’s mysteries include the character Mary Minor “Harry” Harristeen, who runs a small-town post office while doing amateur detective work with some animal friends.

A real-life American mail carrier (for a while) with a literary connection was Henry Crowder, a jazz musician most remembered for the relationship he and heiress/poet/editor/political activist Nancy Cunard had for several years in Europe. Crowder assisted Cunard on various publishing projects, and helped inspire her famous 800-plus-page Negro: An Anthology that included the work of Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and many others. Cunard dedicated the 1934 book to Crowder. (Henry later married May Frances “Frankie” Turner, Eleanor Roosevelt’s seamstress at the White House.)

I’ll cheat here a bit and also mention Mr. Beasley, the hapless mail carrier who often gets knocked over by the rushing-to-work Dagwood in the Chic Young-created, 90-year-old “Blondie” comic strip — which of course has been gathered in various book collections. (See the image atop this blog post — sort of a metaphor for what Trump is trying to do to the USPS.)

Oh heck, crusty Mr. Wilson of Hank Ketcham’s “Dennis the Menace” comic was also a mail carrier — albeit retired.

And I loved Reba the mail carrier in the Pee-wee’s Playhouse children’s TV show that was really kind of for adults, too. Reba was played by S. Epatha Merkerson, an excellent actress raised by a single mother who worked for the…USPS!

Any literature/post-office connections you’d like to mention? Or you could just comment on the awful, incompetent, never-reads-a-book Trump and the fellow Republicans who allow him to get away with countless cruel words and actions.

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started, award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest piece — which discusses, among other things, a 150-year-old bus company suspending operations because of the pandemic — is here.

Grandparents in Literature Can Be Grand…or Not

RacingWhen I read novels, themes for blog posts occur to me. So, after finishing Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain last week, the logical theme would have been to write about memorable dogs in literature. But I already did that two weeks ago, which led to several commenters recommending I read…The Art of Racing in the Rain.

(Those recommenders are credited at the bottom of the comments section.)

Anyway, I tried to think of another theme inspired by Stein’s poignant, inventive, narrated-by-amazing-dog-Enzo novel and came up with…grandparents in literature. The 2008 book’s grandparents Maxwell and Trish are significant secondary characters, and they’re horrible people — especially Maxwell. They’re nasty from the start to son-in-law Denny — the novel’s race-car-driving human star (shown above with Enzo) — and then things escalate as the older couple wrongly/sickeningly seek custody of grandchild Zoe: the daughter of Denny and his cancer-stricken wife Eve, whose parents are Trish and Maxwell. The blatant lying and depravity of the rich, entitled Maxwell reminded me of Trump.

Of course, many other grandparents — whether in fiction or real life — are good people who frequently dote on their grandchildren. (And are happy to again have kinship with kids minus the day-to-day responsibility.) Some examples of admirable grandparents include Penelope Keeling of Rosamunde Pilcher’s The Shell Seekers, Lechuza Blanca (aka “White Owl”) of Isabel Allende’s Zorro, and Claire and Jamie of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. Brief summaries of those four characters:

Despite some major disappointments in life, the independent/young-at-heart/makes-the-best-of-things Penelope treats her not-all-nice extended family well.

The Native-American Lechuza is a spiritual mentor to her part-Spanish grandson Diego de la Vega. “White Owl” helps Diego discover that his guardian animal is a fox (“zorro” in Spanish), and he becomes a masked, sword-wielding vigilante under that name.

Claire is a 20th-century doctor who meets 18th-century Scottish warrior Jamie when she goes back in time, and the two have quite an eclectic grandchildren situation several decades later. Their biological grandkids (Jem and Mandy) are the children of a couple (Claire and Jamie’s daughter Brianna and her husband Roger) who toggle between the 1900s and 1700s. Plus Claire and Jamie are the adopted grandparents/step-grandparents of several other kids (the children of Fergus and Marsali) who always live in the 18th century.

More mixed on the good/not-so-good spectrum are the Greek-immigrant grandparents in Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex. Eleutherios and Desdemona aren’t bad people, but happen to be…brother and sister. (Yes, they married despite being siblings.) This eventually has major genetic consequences for their grandchild Callie, the novel’s main protagonist.

There’s also Sully of the Richard Russo novel Nobody’s Fool. He’s a flawed, not-always-responsible, somewhat-decent guy who develops a cordial relationship with his grandson Will despite the fact that Sully was not an always-there father to Will’s dad Peter.

And how about having a grandmother as strong-minded and eccentric as Frieda Haxby Palmer in Margaret Drabble’s The Witch of Exmoor? Never a dull moment, for better or for worse.

Rebecca and Isaac are also rather quirky grandparents in Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent, which partly fictionalizes the lives of some major and minor Biblical characters. The novel stars Dinah, who’s the granddaughter of Rebecca and Isaac (and daughter of Jacob and Leah).

Some grandparents are middle-aged or not much older, while others are quite advanced in years — meaning the death of grandparents is definitely a thing in many novels. For instance, the two Joad grandparents pass away relatively early in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, but they’re around long enough for us to see how their feisty personalities have been passed on to some extent to the next generations.

Grandparents in literature you’ve found memorable?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest piece — which discusses topics such as my town’s proposed hybrid school model this fall — is here.